All Partial Evil, Universal Good?

Ernest Nagel criticizes the argument that

the things called evil are evil only because they are viewed in isolation; they are not evil when viewed in proper perspective and in relation to the rest of the universe. …

it is unsupported speculation…

For the argument can be turned around: what we judge to be a good is a good only because it is viewed in isolation; when it is viewed in its proper perspective, and in relation to the entire scheme of things, it is an evil. This is in fact a standard form of the argument for a universal pessimism. Is it any worse than the similar argument for a universal optimism? (Critiques of God, 13-4)

Yes, but the point is that as long as it is merely possible, even if unknown and unproven, that all partial evil contributes to the universal greatest good, the attack on theism by the problem of evil is to an extent blunted. I already pointed out that, contra Nagel, atheism dissolves rather than solves the problem of evil, as an atheist is willy-nilly forced to contend that there is no such thing as evil at all. At the same time, the theological problem of evil posits a logical contradiction between the goodness and perfection of the Creator and the sorry state of the creation. Since our author does not demonstrate that this is not the best possible world, his refutation of this particular defense fails.

Dembski the Wise

William Dembski has used the term “4th law of thermodynamics” to describe the law of conservation of information. For this he was savaged by the Darwinian fanatics who suggested that postulating a new law of nature was insane.

But here is philosopher Wallace I. Matson who in a 1965 book The Existence of God gave an example similar to one Dembski used to illustrate the law:

A common example of increase of entropy is the diffusion of liquids.

Half fill a beaker with water and then very carefully pour red wine into the upper half. There will then be two layers, the bottom one colorless and the top one red. If the beaker is left undisturbed, in time the differentiation will vanish; a uniformly pink fluid will be found in it.

This is because the molecules of water and wine at the boundary are in constant random motion, some up, some down. The molecules of wine will pass into the water, and vice versa. The process is not reversible…

But suppose now that a solid disc is placed horizontally in the middle of the beaker. There is a hole in it just big enough to allow a single molecule to pass; and the hole is provided with a cover. This cover is held by an infinitesimal but intelligent being (“Maxwell’s demon”) who is able to distinguish water molecules from wine molecules, as in their random motion they approach the hole.

Whenever he sees a wine molecule approaching from below, or a water molecule from above, he opens the hole and lets the molecule pass through; otherwise he keeps it shut. In this way, the mixture might separate itself (for the demon does not shove any of the molecules; he does no work on this isolated system), and its entropy might decrease under the guidance but not added physical energy of an intelligence. (Critiques of God, 79)

Matson then objects that human intelligence is embodied, and so the 4th law is not by that fact an exception to the 2nd law. There may be something to this objection, but the point is this: as long as an intelligent agent has certain true beliefs, however acquired, then he may be able to costlessly decrease the entropy in a system.

It may be that in order to obtain those true beliefs, such as which molecules are water and which are wine, an embodied intelligence must expend energy and in the end increase overall entropy, with the upshot that “there is no ‘anabolic and antientropic factor of whose existence we are certain in ourselves.'” But an ideal mind is immaterial, as for that matter is God. Hence the argument works, and Dembski is correct.

Specified Complexity Is a Marker for Design

Matson presents the “Humean” design inference in the following manner:

(1) Natural objects share with artifacts the common characteristics of adjustment of parts and curious adapting of means to ends.
(2) Artifacts have these characteristics because they are products of design.
(3) Natural objects are probably products of a great designer. (84)

He has 2 objections to it. First, this argument is “by analogy” and resembles too well an utterly fallacious reasoning such as:

(4) Natural objects share with artifacts the common characteristic of being colored.
(5) Artifacts are colored by being painted or dyed.
(6) Natural objects are probably colored by a great painter-dyer. (85)

My reply is that if we inspect any object that exhibits specified complexity (SC) (for “curious adapting,” etc.) for which we can find out by other means whether it was intelligently designed, then it will turn out that it actually was intelligently designed. It will then stand to reason that even SC objects for which we have no other evidence that they were products of intelligent design still were products of intelligent design also.

Color, on the other hand, cannot spark a design inference. That X is red is no reliable indicator of X’s having been designed, because many red objects that are such that we know whether or not they were products of ID (by evidence other than their color), were not in fact products of ID. Unlike SC objects. As a result, (3) follows, and (6) does not.

Second, Matson suggests that we are often “able to tell whether something is an artifact without knowing what it is for or whether its parts are accurately adjusted.” (88) That’s very true. (Note that complexity, purpose, and design inference are 3 different things.) Sometimes design may be inferred through something other than specified complexity. This does not affect the point that SC is in itself a reliable indicator of design. SC is sufficient for a design inference, even if not necessary. But no more than this is needed for ascribing design to many “natural objects” such as biological systems.

If we restrict our attention to SC, then we may indeed miss a few instances of design, such as based on “machining, materials that do not exist in nature, regular markings, and the like.” (89) There may be false negatives. But there will not be false positives; SC is almost fully guaranteed to yield correct inferences. Once again (3) follows from (1) and (2), even if on occasion we might fail to detect design via those premises.

Authoritarian vs. Humanistic Religions?

Erich Fromm distinguishes them, condemning the former and generally praising the latter:

The essential element in authoritarian religion… is the surrender to a power transcending man. The main virtue of this type of religion is obedience, its cardinal sin is disobedience. Just as the deity is conceived as omnipotent or omniscient, man is conceived as being powerless and insignificant. …

Humanistic religion, on the contrary, is centered around man and his strength. Man must develop his power of reason in order to understand himself, his relationship to his fellow men and his position in the universe.

He must develop his powers of love for others as well as for himself and experience the solidarity of all living beings.

His must have principles and norms to guide him in this aim. (164-5)

It’s ironic that Fromm’s “anti-authoritarian” “religion” is interspersed with so many “musts.”

Fromm completely ignores the crucial task of reforming criminals, psychopaths, perverts, and cruel abusers. A “humanistic” religion is for humans, but these miscreants are anything but; they are precisely subhumans who must be punished, including and especially for their own sake, lest they in their savagery destroy their own souls.

Eric Hoffer propounds the following monstrosity:

It’s disconcerting to realize that businessmen, generals, soldiers, men of action are less corrupted by power than intellectuals…

You take a conventional man of action, and he’s satisfied if you obey. But not the intellectual. He doesn’t want you just to obey. He wants you to get down on your knees and praise the one who makes you love what you hate and hate what you love.

In other words, whenever the intellectuals are in power, there’s soul-raping going on.

Now this is slander of astonishing viciousness. An intellectual is a man with interesting new ideas. It turns out, according to Hoffer, that having interesting ideas ineluctably leads one to rape others. What other pearls of wisdom will our author offer from on high?

In any case, however, there are people who must change themselves indeed to “love what they hate and hate what they love.” Such people need not intellectuals but demons to beat them with many blows. They need to purify their evil wills through strenuous self-denial and discipline.

I’d have thought that a murderer who finds pleasure in his victims’ suffering must go through a (hopefully) temporary stage where his ill-directed power must be reduced to nothing before he can cultivate his powers to do good. Complete surrender is indeed the hidden key.

Religion is and ought to be authoritarian whenever a man’s nature is corrupt and disordered; it becomes humanistic only when his nature is healed and grace is bestowed on him.

The Christian church, consistent with its mission of being all things to all people, thus properly retains within itself both authoritarian and humanistic aspects.

Then, Fromm writes, “God is not a symbol of power over man but of man’s own power.” (172, italics removed) Well, first, God is not a symbol; He is a real thing. Second, “man’s own power” can be either creative or destructive. If it is creative, then it is rather man who is a “symbol” of God, imitating Him. If, however, it is destructive, then the authorities of the world ought to punish him for violating the natural law.

E.g., love is a Christian, and not natural, phenomenon. If the natural law is fully heeded, no external religious constraints are necessary, and a man is free to “self-actualize,” including grow in charity; for a bad man, Christianity (justly) consists mostly in a litany of prohibitions.

Fromm’s thesis of course also suffers from failure to admit grace as the “beginning of glory” which lifts man above his nature into deiformity or the state of being godlike.

Finally, religion is not “humanistic” but divine insofar as the object of man’s happiness is God. Again, God is not a “symbol of man’s need to love”; God is the unique thing that is perfectly lovable by its very essence.

Solving the Problem of Physical Evil

In a penetrating paper, H.J. McCloskey considers a number of arguments in defense of God’s existence when faced with the theological problem of evil.

Let me mention a few that seem to be straw men that McCloskey gleefully demolishes. The second argument is “physical evil is God’s punishment for sin. This kind of explanation was advanced to explain the terrible Lisbon earthquake in the eighteenth century, in which 40,000 people were killed. There are many replies to this argument, for instance Voltaire’s. Voltaire asked: ‘Did God in this earthquake select the 40,000 least virtuous of the Portuguese citizens?'” (209) But the argument rather is that the world with physical evil (i.e., one in which such evil occurs from time to time) is punishment for the Original Sin to the human race as a whole; it’s not the case that a given instance of physical evil is punishment to a particular Smith for a particular actual sin.

Prior to that, McCloskey ascribes to theists the fault of “denying the reality of evil by describing it as a ‘privation’ or absence of good.” (207) Now evil is not mere absence of good; it is absence of good that ought by right to be there. This is unlike true absence of good for which it is not the case that this good ought to have been there all along. An obvious example of the latter is poverty. It’s a natural human condition of lack of wealth; that man ought to be prosperous is in no way the “correct” state of affairs unjustly violated; hence poverty is not an evil but absence of good. It is ironic that McCloskey dismisses this argument, since any genuine physical evil depends on the existence of a good God who for seemingly unfathomable reasons lets us suffer. It is McCloskey who must deny the reality of evil. It is wrong to conflate evil and absence of good; but it is also wrong to fail to realize that it is meaningless to speak of physical evil without God.

(Another example: a gifted child has more potential than a regular child. If evil were merely absence of good, then the former would have to be judged worse than the latter, since being gifted yet undeveloped implies a greater distance from self-perfection. This perverse conclusion is avoided once we grasp that it’s not the case that a gifted kid ought to be perfect but only that he ought to strive to become a perfect adult much later in life.)

The fifth argument is that “the universe is better with evil in it.” McCloskey wants proof that all physical evil is “in fact valuable and necessary as a means to greater good.” (212) Again, however, the problem of evil is a logical — and hence strong — puzzle of how a good and perfect Creator can co-exist with a perilous world like ours. In order to dispose of the paradox, it is sufficient “simply to suggest that physical evil might nonetheless have a justification, although we may never come to know this justification.”

McCloskey goes on to assert that on this argument “we could [then] never know whether evil is really evil, or good really good. … By implication it follows that it would be dangerous to eliminate evil because we may thereby introduce a discordant element into the divine symphony of the universe; and, conversely, it may be wrong to condemn the elimination of what is good, because the latter may result in the production of more, higher goods.” (213) But he himself disposes of this objection by admitting that “physical evil enriches the whole by giving rise to moral goodness…, noble moral virtues — courage, endurance, benevolence, sympathy, and the like.” When a man eliminates physical evil, he by that fact creates a moral good; moreover, no discordant element is introduced, because he leaves “enough and as bad,” to parody Locke, for everyone else.

Now moral good can be elicited by physical evil, but so can moral evil. The theist “then goes on to account for moral evil in terms of the value of free will and/or its goods.” (214) McCloskey objects that free will would then seem to justify a hellish world with only moral evil, and in such a world physical evil would incidentally not be justified.

We will deal with moral evil in the next post.

Original Sin and the Purpose of Moral Evil

“How could a morally perfect, all powerful God,” asks McCloskey, “create a universe in which occur such moral evils as cruelty, cowardice, and hatred, the more especially as these evils constitute a rejection of God Himself…?” The typically given answer is that “free will alone provides a justification for moral evil. … men have free will; moral evil is a consequence of free will; a universe in which men exercise free will even with lapses into moral evil is better than a universe in which men become automata doing good always because predestined to do so.” (217) This version indeed has the difficulty that it would also perversely justify a world with no moral good and unshakeable moral wickedness. As a result, theists must insist that “in fact men do not always choose what is evil.”

McCloskey then brings up the question of why free will and absolute moral goodness are incompatible. At the very least, he suggests, free will should be compatible with must less moral evil than marks this world. In what follows, I will reply to this objection.

Beside physical and moral goods, there is further metaphysical good such as indeed free will which McCloskey does not identify as such. In discussing it, it will help to divide it into “levels.” On level 1, the metaphysical good is the degree of perfection of creaturely essences. To illustrate: Socrates is better than a pig metaphysically; Socrates is better than a fool morally; and Socrates satisfied is better than Socrates dissatisfied physically. Here metaphysical evil is the distance between the completeness of a creature and the completeness of God, with God being perfect and containing zero metaphysical evil.

However, it will immediately be apparent that each creature is content with being what it is; thus, frogs do not dream of wanting to be cats; nor cats, humans; nor (it seems) humans, angels. Despite the fact that a cat has the cat nature and not the divine nature, the cat is at peace and does not envy God. On level 2, there is no metaphysical evil at all!

Level 3 comes in when we admit that humans are a unique and astonishing exception to the rule. Humans are the only creatures with an ineluctable tendency to corrupt their own nature, as the Christian story of the Original Sin indicates. Now the story of man’s fall from grace is compatible with old earth, etc. if we follow Dembski and propose that Adam and his Garden may have been created billions of years ago, but the universe was created still earlier with physical evil in anticipation of Adam’s sin which God had foreseen.

(There is also level 4, which is attained via divine grace, charity, etc. that will in the end unite the entire creation into a single vine-and-branches that far exceeds even pure nature.)

In thus sinning originally, Adam and Eve brought the entire lower world down with them, which explains animal suffering. Both human and external nature are now partially corrupt; moreover, actual sin follows on original, and men can now act in morally evil ways.

Human corruptibility is a unique metaphysical defect of the human nature. When tempted with the promise that “you will be like gods,” man, by unjustly coveting the divine nature, despised and therefore corrupted his own human nature. (God made us as good as possible, and though it was not good enough, God’s ad extra omnipotence is safeguarded.) It was therefore impossible to make humans who would always choose good. Provisions were made through the incarnation of the Son much later for the partial amelioration of this defect. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” etc. We cannot hope to deal with the problem of evil without rightly understanding early Genesis.

So much for revelation. But reason suggests the same answer. We need to undo our corruption. We must purposely purge the evil from our souls, purify our nature of its innate corruption evident to everyone (and not just to Christians). It is ironic that our physically evil environment reflects our fallen nature and proneness to commit moral evil. The world is as wild and savage and merciless physically as man is wild morally. The only way for us to succeed in staying alive and avoiding pain and physical disorders of every kind is to cooperate and in so doing relentlessly abide by natural law and justice. God is not sticking it to us, rubbing our noses in our flaws with this irony. The point was to make justice toward men the crucial means to success in subduing the earth. Mastering the natural world — and the concomitant alleviation of physical evil — depends greatly on mastering one’s own human nature. Physical suffering is an incentive to us to be moral.

The moral good promoted by physical evil is not heroic sainthood or glorious works of mercy inspired by divine grace but merely purity of the human nature. It is not divine Christian love but merely absence of demonic hatred. But that is sufficient. For one, corrupt nature is the greatest obstacle to grace. Heal the nature, and God will not disappoint us with His supernatural gifts. McCloskey considers the argument that “pain is a goad to action and that part of its justification lies in this fact.” I agree with him in rejecting this defense, because even absence of pleasure (coupled with anticipation of future utility) is sufficient for action, not any pain. It would seem that in paradise that will be precisely the reason for the everlasting economic improvement. It could have been this way in this world, too, and the reason why it’s not is the corrupt human nature which makes occasional physical pain necessary in order for man to regain his full humanity.

Nor is physical evil a good incentive to charity. Even without this evil, one can be motivated by a desire to improve his neighbor’s welfare. Even if one could not relieve the neighbor’s pain under no-physical-evil, he could still create pleasure for him. But does not physical evil grow charity more efficiently? Is man best motivated by the plight of his fellow men than by opportunity to bring about pleasure? Further, under pure nature and no physical evil, nature alone suffices to yield fastest economic progress. What use is there for charity then? And isn’t it a mighty spiritual achievement to learn to love people who ought to be loved but are somewhat unlovable? Well, charity makes practical interpersonal utility comparisons possible. Therefore, one is enabled to improve overall happiness through some sacrifices of own smaller interest for the beloved’s greater interest. This can be accomplished even in a physically perfect world. Now Jesus said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13) But in a no-physical-evil world there is never a need to lay down one’s life. Hence expressions of perfect love are impossible in an Earthly Paradise. I do not know how great a loss this would be, but my guess is not enough of a loss to justify physical evil.

Moral goods like courage and prudence, too, can co-exist with absence of physical evil. Courage can be cashed out as tactical mastery, athletic performance, presence of mind, and so on. There is no need for violent aggression toward fellow men in order to manifest courage.

To conclude, a world in which physical evil is plentiful but not overwhelming is justified by the need for it for purification of human nature. A world in which further moral evil is plentiful but also not overwhelming is justified as an inevitable result of free will. It’s not the case that every particular physical evil is an essential part of the overall good. A given moral evil can never be justified, but moral evils are permitted by God through His mercy for the metaphysically problematic human nature: “Never again will I curse the ground because of human beings, since the desires of the human heart are evil from youth; nor will I ever again strike down every living being, as I have done.” (Gen 8:21)

Note again that (1) the presence of both physical good and evil means that the world is physically, regarding narrow happiness, ambivalent;

(2) the presence of both moral good and evil means that the world is morally evil, since even a single sin or vice can ruin a person;

(3) finally, the world is as metaphysically good as it can possibly be which means that it is metaphysically good tout court.

Meaning of Life in Two Loves

I have identified two termini of the human life: relative in one’s own happiness and absolute in God.

This is how they differ: own happiness is of the self; God is the connection between self and everything else, especially through the mutual indwelling of charity but also through knowledge and power.

Absence of either would make life meaningless; presence of both assures meaning.

Through union with God, one comes to be in all, and all in him. No thing is beyond a man’s purview, as though irrelevant. But having thus provisionally grasped the infinite, the world without end, man finds life’s meaning in the pursuit of happiness in it.